Ever since Grand Theft Auto III brought open-world gaming to the masses, the sandbox action shooter has been a hot genre that's spawned several hits. Aside from the GTA franchise, titles like Crackdown and Red Faction: Guerrilla have proven to be masterpieces of gaming, and now we have another title to add to the list. Just Cause 2 fixes everything the franchise did wrong the first time around and elevates it to a must-play experience. While technical bugs and some god-awful voice acting tarnish matters a bit, the core elements of this game make it something we're all going to remember for a long time to come.
Just Cause 2 returns series protagonist Rico Rodriguez, who is sent on a black-ops mission to the Southeast Asian island of Panau. It seems a former CIA operative who just so happens to be Rico's mentor has gone missing, and "The Agency" wants Rodriguez to find out if the missing agent is captured, dead or has possibly even gone rogue. Of course, things quickly get much more complicated, and Rodriguez finds himself in the middle of a mad grab for power on this seemingly useless hunk of rock. The plot then careens down the typical "things aren't what they seem" path without abandon, creating yet another half-baked tale you'll forget about the moment you turn off the console.
The laughable story is performed by some of the industry's worst voice actors, each of whom seems to be trying out new accents on the fly, all designed to offend any who hear them. Rodriguez's CIA buddy is a southern-fried good ol' boy who prefers big booms and smoldering remains to diplomacy, and Agency mole Jade Tan is such an amalgamation of offensive Asian stereotypes I'm still not sure where she's actually supposed to be from. Every time she popped up on-screen, I braced myself for "Me so horny, me love you long time," because that's about the level of depth provided for her. Things don't get much better with the various faction leaders Rico interacts with, as they all have dialects that don't seem to fit anywhere on the globe. I'm pretty sure one lady was trying to be both Asian and Jamaican at once, which turned out to be an especially notable hot mess.
Luckily for Just Cause, the subpar story and shoddy acting are nicely overshadowed by gameplay that is just too much fun to be ignored. In order to do anything in the game, whether it's unlocking story missions or buying new weapons, Rico must run around the island of Panau generating chaos. How does he do that? Well, the sensible thing to do is run missions for the various factions vying to topple the current regime and seize power for themselves, and while that works to a point, the more enjoyable way to earn your stripes is to simply run around and blow up everything. Indeed, much like Red Faction or Mercenaries, this is one of those games where wanton destruction of other people's property is encouraged and welcomed. If you see a military airbase, why not swipe a chopper or fighter jet and go on a few strafing runs? If you find a statue of the island's current dictator, you can tether it to a vehicle and topple the whole thing, maybe even dragging the big stone head behind you to take out pursuing soldiers. The whole island really is your playground, and the only thing likely to stop your maniacal ways is the overwhelming military force that will eventually be called in to respond to your shenanigans. Sure, you'll eventually die, but doesn't it feel nice to know that it took five gunships and several dozen soldiers to subdue you?
One of the most impressive things about Just Cause 2 is the scale, as the island of Panau is a huge place with varied topography. From the sun-baked deserts to the snow-capped mountains, this place is vast and teeming with opportunity. The visuals also do the games favors, as locales are detailed and the whole island just looks gorgeous. Panau would be an ideal vacation spot if it weren't so unstable and, well … fictional. Even if the island isn't safe for tourists, you can still enjoy Rico's personal vacation, full of amazing fireballs and impressive explosions as yet another fuel depot or oil refinery goes up in flames.
Of course, in order to fully enjoy the island, you're going to need methods of transportation, and the game isn't stingy in that regard. For starters, there are over 100 vehicles on land, sea and air, so finding a ride is almost never a challenge. On top of all that, Rico is equipped with an absolutely ridiculous grappling hook that lets him climb just about any surface, as well as a parachute that can be deployed at any time. Using the grapple in conjunction with the parachute, players can even "slingshot" around the island, quickly skimming over treetops to get from place to place. It's definitely an incredibly fun way to get around, and you'll quickly wonder how you ever dealt with all those other sandbox games that actually made you get out and walk from time to time.
Moving about quickly is critical both because the military is constantly on your tail and because there is so much to see and do in this game. Even after spending almost 20 hours with the title, I'm still hovering at under 30 percent total completion, and the idea that I haven't even seen two-thirds of what the game has to offer makes me absolutely giddy with anticipation. If you like your games to last and last, then this one's for you; it's one of those titles that keep on giving. It's almost impossible to just go from one mission to the next, as the mere commute to each locale will likely present you with a dozen distractions apiece. Make no mistake; this isn't one of those games you'll put down quickly because it's linear or boring.
In spite of all the gameplay strengths, there are still a few glaring weaknesses that knick up the experience. First off is the repetitive nature of some of the missions, particularly the stronghold takeovers each faction requires. These levels, which are essential for opening up new missions and challenges, all play out the same way with Rico escorting a crew of fighters through a base and to a designated point. Along the way, you can rest assured that you'll have to hack a security gate, take out some snipers or mounted gunners, and then end the experience by battling a base commander riding in an armed-to-the-teeth chopper. Other faction missions aren't much better, often requiring you to kill a specific enemy or steal a certain vehicle and then drop it off. Once in a while, you get a truly unique and exciting mission, but for the most part, they're just fluff.
Another shortcoming is the game's wonky checkpoint system, which often punishes you to a fault for failing missions. Most of the faction challenges are all-or-nothing affairs, and if you fail, you'll have to start over at the beginning. The story missions and some of the longer faction quests have built-in break points throughout, but they're poorly spaced. Even worse, any destruction you cause or secret items you snag are lost if you die, so you'll have to retrace your steps exactly if you want to keep any goodies you may have found.
The final gameplay flaw is the black market, which is where players can buy and upgrade weapons and vehicles, as well as call for an extraction to any previously discovered locale. One problem is that the game provides ample firearms and transportation, making the black market all but useless until the really high-level weapons and vehicles open up. Even then, players will need to substantially upgrade the equipment to make it effective, and even worse, you'll have to buy every single piece of equipment every time you need it. Is your revolver low on bullets? Well, it'll be $40,000 for 50 fresh rounds. For that price, they'd better be solid gold and diamond-tipped, or else you just got ripped off. The sloppy implementation kind of makes you wonder if this wasn't a last-minute addition, something thrown in when the developers got caught in a firefight one too many times without any ammo.
Just Cause 2 also suffers from a few technical bugs, but they're relatively minor. Audio will sometimes stutter or cut out inexplicably, and the game sometimes has trouble understanding mission progress. On two separate occasions, challenges were rendered unbeatable because I was supposed to visit a certain location and cause a set amount of destruction. Unfortunately, in both cases, I had already been to the sites in my earlier exploits and leveled absolutely everything. Thus, it was impossible for me to register any damage when I arrived for the mission, so I couldn't help but fail at every attempt I made. It's one of those bugs that may not affect everyone, but it's potentially crippling for those it does.
Just Cause 2 is the sort of game where you're willing to put up with a lot just because it's so darn enjoyable. Any time you get annoyed by something, you can take comfort in knowing that there's something to blow up just over the next hill, and sending a tower of flames into the sky will make it all better. This is also the perfect game for the ADD generation, as you can't walk 100 yards in any direction without running smack into something to do. While the story is terrible, the acting is bad and the bugs are frustrating, none of that ultimately matters when weighed against all the things this game does right. This one is pure, mindless fun and once you pick it up, it's near-impossible to ever put it back down.
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